Las Vegas Sun

April 23, 2019

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An early chapter in Vegas architecture

New offering revisits 1968 Yale study of city’s iconic structures


COURTESY of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, Inc.

Denise Scott Brown stands in the desert in 1966. Two years later she returned with students from Yale to study Las Vegas architecture.

Click to enlarge photo

It wasn't just buildings the Yale students studied, photographed and mapped on their trip to Las Vegas. It was also more mundane elements of design, such as this billboard advertising tanning lotion.

Click to enlarge photo

The north end of the Strip in 1968 had a very different look than it does today. Many of those buildings, including the Frontier and the Stardust, have been razed or imploded.

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A stylish new art book revisits a 40-year-old study of the commercial iconography of Las Vegas that changed the way people talked about architecture.

In 1968 architects Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi brought 13 students from the Yale School of Art and Architecture to Las Vegas to research a new urban form taking place across America.

The group filmed, photographed, surveyed and mapped Las Vegas and its Strip. Billboards, signs and parking lots were analyzed as intensely as buildings.

The publication of the study, “Learning From Las Vegas,” has become a classic of architectural theory and is still is dissected in classrooms, discourse and literature, referenced in newspaper and magazine articles and even adored by certain groups.

But at the time, the architectural world was aghast, accusing the husband and wife team of surrendering to commercialism and hype in their quest to learn from the desires of the general public rather than architectural decree.

“They thought we were the anti-Christ,” Scott Brown said recently from her home in Philadelphia. “Architecture is a very normative field ... They’re saying, ‘We have the message and you people don’t understand the way to think.’ In the 1960s we said you should listen to what people want.”

“Las Vegas Studio: Images From the Archives of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown” revisits that time in a 193-page fabric-bound book, released last week by the University of Chicago Press. The book features 150 photographs, many of which were not seen in or not reproduced in color in the original book.

Technicolor and definitively 1960s, the photos — mostly documentary, some seemingly random or incidental — portray architects Venturi, Scott Brown and Steven Izenour (the book’s third author who died in 2001) in the field with the Yale students and at leisure. There are also shots of a Las Vegas that is no longer here. The result comes across as a private scrapbook or intimate photo album, a fond memento of the experience and of the time.

It was edited by Hilar Stadler, director of Museum im Bellpark Kriens in Switzerland, and Martino Stierli, an architecture professor. They curated the traveling exhibition of the same name, which opened in Switzerland, is being shown in Frankfurt, Germany, and will come to the United States in November.

The curators were given full access to thousands of images taken during the research and focused as much on the artistic quality of the photographs as they did on images portraying the group’s methodical approach to analyzing Las Vegas. Images range from the pop-like and visually stunning to the more mundane — a response to Scott Brown’s interest in “deadpan.” The collection includes photos supporting Scott Brown and Venturi’s famous terms “duck” and “decorated shed,” which refer to buildings in the shape of the product inside and to buildings with symbolic adornments that represent the main product.

An essay discusses the method of research by the architects and students, and looks at Las Vegas in the context of the time, as it was represented through film and photography, in architectural debate, Hollywood and the writing of Tom Wolfe.

Nothing much has changed. If anything, the essay illustrates just how long Las Vegas has been studied, celebrated and criticized as a “repository for escapist dreams, where the average American was able to seek refuge from everyday life, but in the process fell victim to the machinery of capitalist commercialization all the more.”

Also referenced is the influence of artist Ed Ruscha, mainly through his dry photographic depictions of urban landscapes. On their way to Las Vegas, the group visited Ruscha’s Los Angeles studio to discuss his thought process, which turned out to be not easily retrievable by the artist:

“When we went to see him, he didn’t know how to talk about them,” Scott Brown says. “We could see it was much more intuitive for him. He kind of gave up on talking to us. We all just drank beer and had a good time.”

Like Ruscha’s photographs, Scott Brown’s images had an almost mechanical documentary style. She has long been keeping photographic record of sites and considering cities in the context of what is and what ought to be — an idea born while growing up in an English colony in Africa.

Scott Brown no longer does photography because she doesn’t have time. The photographs from the Las Vegas study, she says, are very precious to her and she says she still wants to work with the photos, but as with her essays of the same time, she says, “I couldn’t do that now because you move on.”

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